Chemically sweet – the sweet journey (part 4 of 6)

Too much energy in relation to sweetness is one of the many problems with the alternatives to regular sugar that we have looked at so far along our journey into the world of sweetening. The solution is, of course, a sweetener that gives a lot of sweetness but little or no energy. And chemists have managed to produce many of these. In the fourth of six articles on our sweetening journey, it's time for artificial sweeteners.

13 November 2020 •

We are halfway on our jour­ney into the world of sweet­en­ing. Along the way, we have looked at alter­na­tive sug­ars, sug­ar alco­hols and oth­er bulk sweet­en­ers. So far, we have not found any good alter­na­tive to sug­ar. It is time to realise that the solu­tion is not found in sweet­en­ers with about the same sweet­ness and vol­ume as sug­ar. We must change the direc­tion of our jour­ney and enter the ter­ri­to­ry of the high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­ers. The first stop will be with the arti­fi­cial ones.

High-intensity sweeteners

Sugars, sug­ar alco­hols and high­ly processed bulk sweet­en­ers are nutri­tive sweet­en­ers. The fact that they pro­vide ener­gy is the source of the prob­lems we have with them.

Actually, the ener­gy itself isn’t a prob­lem. The crux is that nutri­tive sweet­en­ers con­tain too much ener­gy in rela­tion to their sweetness.

What we need are sweet­en­ers that con­tribute no or neg­li­gi­ble ener­gy rel­a­tive to the desired sweet­ness. Such sweet­en­ers are called a non-nutri­tive sweet­en­er.

Non-nutri­tive sweet­en­ers are also called high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­ers (HIS) as their sweet­ness is per­ceived as much more intense than the sweet­ness of the same amount of reg­u­lar sugar.

Artificial sweeteners

The most well-known and researched group of high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­ers are syn­thet­i­cal­ly pro­duced, called arti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers. They are entire­ly human-made, and have no coun­ter­part in nature, and yet they are quite (in)famous to most consumers.

Acesulfame K (E 950), also called ace­sul­fame potas­si­um or Ace K, is 130–200 times sweet­er than reg­u­lar sug­ar. It is pro­duced from ace­toac­etate and potas­si­um. Acesulfame K also works as a flavour enhancer and is used, among oth­er things, to enhance the sweet­ness in aspar­tame, cycla­mate and sucralose.

Aspartame (E 951) is about 200 times sweet­er than reg­u­lar sug­ar. It is pro­duced from the nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring amino acids, aspar­tic acid, and pheny­lala­nine. Foods that con­tain aspar­tame must state that it ‘con­tains a source of phenylalanine’.

Cyclamates (E 952) is the col­lec­tive name for cal­ci­um cycla­mate, potas­si­um cycla­mate and sodi­um cycla­mate, which are about 30 times sweet­er than reg­u­lar sug­ar. These are salts pro­duced from cyclam­ic acid, which in turn is pro­duced through a reac­tion between cyclo­hexy­lamine and chloro­sul­phon­ic acid.

Saccharine (E 954) is the col­lec­tive name for sodi­um sac­cha­r­i­nate and potas­si­um sac­cha­r­i­nate, which is about 400 times sweet­er than reg­u­lar sug­ar. It’s sodi­um- or potas­si­um salts from o‑benzoic sul­fimide. Saccharine has a metal­lic and bit­ter after­taste, which is often masked by oth­er sweeteners.

Sucralose (E 955), also called trichloro­galac­to­su­crose, is 500–600 times sweet­er than reg­u­lar sug­ar. It is pro­duced from reg­u­lar sug­ar by exchang­ing three oxy­gen-hydro­gen pairs for chlo­rine atoms.

Neohesperidine DC (E 959), also called neo­hes­peri­dine dihy­drochal­cone, often abbre­vi­at­ed to NHDC, is 3,000 times sweet­er than reg­u­lar sug­ar. It is pro­duced chem­i­cal­ly from the bit­ter sub­stance neo­hes­peri­dine present in cit­rus fruits. It’s rarely used as the only sweet­en­er; its sweet­ness only comes through after a few sec­onds and gives an after­taste of men­thol and liquorice.

Neotame (E 961) is 7,000–13,000 times sweet­er than reg­u­lar sug­ar. It is pro­duced syn­thet­i­cal­ly through a chem­i­cal reac­tion between aspar­tame and oth­er chem­i­cal substances.

Aspartame-ace­sul­fame salt (E 962) is about 350 times sweet­er than reg­u­lar sug­ar. It is a salt con­sist­ing of ace­sul­fame K (E 950) and aspar­tame (E 951) with the potas­si­um removed. In the body, it is bro­ken down into ace­sul­fame K and aspar­tame. Foods that con­tain aspar­tame-ace­sul­fame salt must state that it ‘con­tains a source of phenylalanine’.

Advantame (E 696) is about 20,000 times sweet­er than reg­u­lar sug­ar. It is pro­duced syn­thet­i­cal­ly from iso­vanillin and aspar­tame (E 951).

Artificial sweet­en­ers and their sweet­ness rel­a­tive to reg­u­lar sug­ar, gly­caemic index (GI) with white bread as a ref­er­ence, and ener­gy content.
Artificial sweet­en­er Sweetness GI Energy
Acesulfame K (E 950) 130–200 × 0 0 kcal/​g
Aspartame (E951) 200 × 0 0 kcal/​g*
Cyclamates (E952) 30 × 0 0 kcal/​g
Saccharine (E954) 400 × 0 0 kcal/​g
Sucralose (E955) 500–600 × 0 0 kcal/​g
Neohesperidine DC (E 959) 3 000 × 0 0 kcal/​g
Neotame (E 961) 7 000–13 000 × 0 0 kcal/​g
Aspartame-ace­sul­fame salt (E 962) 350 × 0 0 kcal/​g
Advantame (E 969) 20 000 × 0 0 kcal/​g
* Contains ener­gy but con­tributes in neg­li­gi­ble amounts due to the small amount need­ed to give sweetness.

Not that great

The arti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers we have come across above are eval­u­at­ed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to be safe enough to be used in food and bev­er­ages. But there are ques­tions raised here and there:

  • Cyclamates were banned in the US in 1969 as they were sus­pect­ed of hav­ing can­cero­genic effects.
  • Saccharine is banned in sev­er­al coun­tries as it is sus­pect­ed to be poisonous.
  • Sucralose is an organochlo­rine com­pound which main­ly pass­es through the body, through waste­water treat­ment plants into nature where it degrades very slowly.
  • Aspartame is bro­ken down in the body to, among oth­ers, pheny­lala­nine, which in turn breaks down to tyro­sine in most peo­ple. But in peo­ple born with the con­gen­i­tal dis­ease phenylke­tonuria, pheny­lala­nine is not bro­ken down but remains in the blood, increas­ing to lev­els that cause brain damage.
  • Aspartame-ace­sul­fame salt con­tains aspar­tame and is there­fore also a source of phenylalanine.

In addi­tion to these issues, there are many alarm reports and state­ments, often lack­ing in evi­dence, nev­er­the­less cir­cu­lat­ing in the gen­er­al con­scious­ness, that are picked up from time to time by news­pa­pers and pop­u­lar mag­a­zines and pre­sent­ed with flam­ing headlines.

These issues, togeth­er with a gen­er­al aver­sion to eat­ing chem­i­cal­ly pro­duced sub­stances, make arti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers a bad choice for food and bev­er­age com­pa­nies who want to be seen as envi­ron­men­tal­ly con­scious and car­ing about their con­sumers’ health.

So, what options are left…?

In the next chap­ter, our jour­ney into the world of sweet­en­ing con­tin­ues fur­ther into the ter­ri­to­ry of the high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­ers. We will cov­er sweet­en­ers with their roots in nature.

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